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A pact fit for the UN’s future?

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Picture: Patrick Gruban, via Wikimedia Commons – United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City. The Assembly took action on a draft resolution on a standing mandate for a General Assembly debate when a veto is cast in the Security Council. There is now a growing consensus that if it wants to remain relevant, the UN must lean into the future and start changing by design rather than by accident, the writer says.

By Youssef Mahmoud

The 78th United Nations (UN) General Assembly is convening at a time when humanity seems to be at war with itself and the environment. It has been charged with rebuilding trust in the multilateral system and reigniting global solidarity, which is approaching a danger zone.

The culminating event of this process, the September 2024 Summit of the Future and the Pact it is expecting to deliver, has been hailed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help restore such trust and solidarity.

The UN, so far, has changed under the pressure of external events. There is now a growing consensus that if it wants to remain relevant, it must lean into the future and start changing by design rather than by accident. The UN Secretary-General policy briefs as well as other briefs, reports, studies, and essays that were on hand a few months ago during the General Assembly (GA) high-level week have offered multiple ideas for renewing or strengthening the multilateral system.

Several of these briefs contend that the UN, for all its flaws, remains an indispensable forum for dialogue and action on global political, security and development issues, especially for developing countries often excluded from mini-lateral clubs such as the G20 or the expanding BRICS. Others believe that the time for incremental structural reforms has long passed. Even if agreed and enacted, these reforms are likely to keep in place a deteriorating global governance system with diminishing effectiveness and legitimacy. Hence the call by some for a broad review of the UN Charter.

Taking a critical systems approach, the points below will focus primarily on what the Pact of the Future could deliver with respect to the reform and possible transformation of the international peace and security architecture which fall under chapters 2 and 5 of the Pact.

In the New Agenda for Peace, the Secretary-General cites the Security Council as an entity in need of an overhaul. The reasons for its dysfunction are well known and legion as are the competing plans for its reform. In his brief, the Secretary-General, [Antonio Guterres], emphasises the urgent need for a Council “more representative of the geopolitical realities of today, and of the contributions that different parts of the world make to global peace”, as well as a “genuine democratisation of its working methods”.

With respect to structural reform, the New Agenda recommends that “urgent progress” be made in the intergovernmental negotiations on Council reform in the General Assembly. These negotiations which began in 2008 have yet to make clear transformational progress. Global perspectives on the likelihood of such progress in the near future are not optimistic.

One way to help ensure that the Pact of the Future contains transformative language with respect to the Council, is to bring to the open the myth that the Council was designed by the framers of the Charter as a collective security mechanism. It is not.

It is a tool for selective security whose primary aim is to maintain peaceful relations between the most powerful states in the international system. To incentivise these states to both join the United Nations and remain within the organisation, the Charter granted them permanent membership on the Council and endowed them with the ability to veto any proposed action that they deemed would threaten or jeopardise their security or interests.

Seen through this angle, the Council’s frequent inability to intervene to prevent crises, resist acts of aggression, or enforce international law is, therefore, not a “failure”. Rather, in its many instances of inaction and non-intervention or paralysis, the Security Council is functioning exactly as it was intended to operate, designed for deadlock.

It was built to be explicitly unfair and undemocratic and crafted to give the Permanent 5 members control over the narratives of what constitutes threats to international peace and security and how to address them largely through the penholder system.

This has added grist to the mill of those who find it untenable that the five member states that won World War II, some of whom are instigating crises, should wield more power that the rest of the membership in a context of a radically changed world and a Charter that prescribes the much debated sovereign equality of all nations large and small.

In light of the above, UN member states may need to make an informed judgment whether shifting the power away from the P5 or adding new permanent members would be the appropriate entry point for enhancing multilateral actions for dealing more effectively with pressing international peace and security issues.

In the face of the above structural dilemmas and the performance deficits of the Council, the General Assembly did not remain indifferent. The Assembly, as commonly known, has had a long-standing ad-hoc working group charged with identifying ways to further enhance its role, authority, effectiveness and efficiency.

Over the years it has made commendable advances towards the revitalisation of its work. In the area of international peace and security, the Assembly played, including most recently, a critical role under the uniting for peace resolution, which is activated whenever the Security Council fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

One of the ways it has exercised its responsibility is the landmark resolution, adopted in April 2022, aimed at holding the five Permanent Security Council members accountable for the use of the veto. Since its adoption, the “veto resolution” — despite its uneven application — has enabled the General Assembly to aspire to a more robust role in matters of peace and security when the Council fails. Some have argued that the General Assembly needs to go further and pass an existential resolution that would give it precedence over the Council in times of conflict.

To further bolster the Assembly’s role, serious thought should be given to the proposal calling for the creation of a World Parliamentary Assembly or a Global Citizens’ Assembly as a subsidiary organ under Article 22 that would ensure that “we the peoples” have say in the decisions taken in their name.

The above systemic innovations, many initiated by small states, and similar ones introduced by elected members of the Security Council to improve the working methods of the Security Council must be valued and cultivated as steadying ballast in these times of systemic turbulence and radical uncertainty. The vigilance and collective leadership of small states is critical lest such improvements be co-opted by a system under severe stress desperately looking for ways to shore up its waning legitimacy and relevance.

Building on the above, a critical initiative that could unleash the transformational potential of the Summit in the area of peace and security is the enactment of article 109 of the UN charter. The article stipulates that a Charter review can be called by “a two-thirds vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any nine members of the Security Council”.

Much has been written about this article and the pros and cons for activating it. Those against it remind us of the least quoted sobering part of article 109 which states “any alteration of the present Charter recommended by a two-thirds vote of the conference shall take effect when ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional processes by two thirds of the Members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council”.

This is admittedly a tall order given the historical realities that presided over the creation of the Council, the myth surrounding its work and the ongoing bitter rivalries among its permanent members, which were in full display in the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Palestine.

In light of the above and fearing that an overall review of the Charter might be long overdrawn, the High Level Advisory on Multilateralism (HLAB) recommended that “The Summit of the Future is an opportunity to reaffirm our common commitment to the UN Charter and announce a Charter Review conference focused on Security Council reform”.

While I agree with those who have argued that the focus of the Charter review needs to be broader, no reform of other organs would have more far reaching consequences for the future relevance of the United Nations than a reform of the Security Council. If the Summit, under Chapters 2 or 5 of the Pact, concurs with this HLAB’s recommendation, it might breathe a new life into the stultified intergovernmental process looking into the reform of the Council. More importantly, such a Charter review would create a regenerative space for other catalytic change processes to take root and even flourish.

Calls to recommit to what is working, reform what is not, and interrogate the anachronistic assumptions informing current system’s structures need to be heeded. By themselves, however, they will not make headway towards transformation if the Pact of the Future does not at a minimum endorse the recommendation of HLAB on Charter review.

Such an endorsement would trigger the difficult but necessary conversation on the curative care the Council should receive pending its transformation or replacement and make room for the majority of member states to continue exploring the role of parallel inter-governmental fora for the maintenance of international peace and security.

These actions, which must be pursued simultaneously, will create an incentive for the United Nations as a whole to gradually and proactively move from what is to what if. For this to happen, the conscious leadership of the Pact’s co-facilitators, supported by like-minded and like hearted member states, is critical.

Without such leadership, the Summit of the Future may not measure up to its transformative potential and the goals of addressing the trust, universality, and solidarity deficits plaguing the United Nations will remain elusive.

Disheartening as the above prospect may sound, it does not have to be an inevitable outcome, if “we the peoples” are invited to meaningfully contribute to the Pact through a series of generative and future-oriented conversations.

Generative in the sense that these conversations should engage key civil society stakeholders in fresh thinking that probes the assumptions, biases and deeply held beliefs that have informed the work of multilateralism and discern the ones that are no longer fit for purpose.

The conversations should also engage in future back thinking as a way of disrupting the present and generating visionary aspirations for a United Nations that is fit for a radically different world. Such an approach is more likely to produce a compelling People’s Pact for the Future that could enrich whatever negotiated text member states may come up with.

Should the Summit meaningfully seize the potentially transformative opportunities some of which are outlined above and decide not to sacrifice on the altar of least common denominator politics the historic mission entrusted to it, it will be remembered for co-authoring a thriving, living Pact that is truly fit for the future.

Youssef Mahmoud is a former UN Under-Secretary General and currently Senior Advisor at the International Peace Institute. You can read an expanded version of this article here.

This article was first published on Global Observatory